The potential for Classics to teach us about ourselves

Monday 17 October 2022

As a fourth year who is nearing the end of his time reading Classics at St Andrews, the module ‘Classics in the Modern World’ was a course that I thought would neatly ‘sign off’ my degree. However, I was wrong in thinking it would be a conclusion to a four-year love affair. Instead, the reading I have done for it (in particular, through the online blog Eidolon) has opened my mind to new possibilities and responsibilities.

Books like Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men and Helen Morales’ Antigone Rising are perhaps not the sorts of texts I would have imagined studying when I set out on my Classics journey, but they have given me a greater understanding of the intricacies and nuances of how Classics is – and can be – received in the 21st century. Morales’ use of Classics to discuss gender, sexuality and misogyny is refreshing and heartfelt in its motivations, whilst Zuckerberg’s work is a careful dissection of the ‘Red Pill’ community. Both works adumbrate the dangers of misappropriating Classics, highlighting the narrowness of many misapplications. ‘No one today is purely one thing’ is a concept that Morales captures particularly well in unpacking the label of ‘Lysistrata’ given (somewhat problematically) to Leymah Gbowee’s activism in Libya.[1] The ‘very small part’ that the ‘Lysistratan’ sex strike played in real-life events is contextualised against the rest of the Liberian women’s three-year-long activism.[2] The ‘lazy’ reporting of journalists and their proclivity for false equivalence for a headline or story is not new. However, the power of Classics enlarges these parallels with an aura of authority that distorts reality.

The dangers of making use of shallow parallels manifest themselves in the search for authority in other classical texts too. Neville Morley has shown how limited and potentially dangerous the West’s oversimplified relationship with Thucydides is, for example, particularly calling out the popularity of Graham Allison’s so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’ as a way to predict how rising tensions between nations might play out. Interestingly, just as Zuckerberg’s ‘Red Pill’ community construct an identity from the ancient past, so do more ‘liberal’ institutions such as the EU. Yet attempts to impose a European identity/culture on a diverse set of peoples is not working any better than efforts to persuade people of ‘the supremacy of prosperity’.[3] As Chaniotis astutely argues through case studies on ancient Crete and the Aphrodisians, ‘cultural memory is no less constructed than an identity’ and is always subject to change (p.49).[4] But if one constructs one’s identity/culture around ideological concepts one cannot simply be deemed ‘wrong’, and any criticism of those concepts becomes an attack on the self and one’s very nature. Ideologies grounded in the past can seem particularly unassailable. The Classical past can be inspiring, but it is not an excuse to become nostalgic and look back. The concepts of democracy, freethought, equality and human rights that we value so dearly are here today because we are. Some of these values may have begun in antiquity, but to attribute these ever-evolving ideas to just one civilisation or period is to paint over the cracks, and to fail to see the Classical past in its plurality of forms.

If attempting to construct a shared identity or culture around Classics is misguided and naïve, ‘Applied Classics’ offers positive opportunities for learning and contemplation. Neville Morley’s idea of playing out the Melian Dialogue in an unpolished form in real time for children is one way in which to interact with the Classics. By playing out the power games between Melos and Athens in the unpredictability of a live debate, one can gain far greater insight than merely reading the episode as a flâneur off the page, using all of one’s senses to experience growth and ‘deep learning’. Similarly, theatre company NMT Automatics adapts ancient tragedy for modern audiences using their captivating style of dance fusion and ‘poor theatre’. Like ancient dramatists, they are telling an evolving story set outside of ‘historical time’ that can reflect and refract our own world and experience.[5] While not has everyone enjoyed their ‘reshaping’ of Classical plays, what they are doing is nothing new. They are consciously and sympathetically using Classics as a locus to experiment and push our understanding in new directions. Like Morley’s ‘Applied Classics’ experiments, NMT Automatics’ community outreach programme is the frontline between the Classics and the public, revivifying ancient texts in new contexts.

As someone who has a perfectionist streak in his personality, I often find myself ruing the material that we as Classicists do not have access to, due in part to the accidents of time and human selection. However, I have come to appreciate that this is an aspect that makes our subject so special, as there is no right answer – only open interpretation. The 2018 exhibition at the British Museum – Rodin: rethinking the fragment – was an experience that changed my perception of Pheidian aesthetics and material culture. Rodin’s love of what we have in the moment – the present self in its incomplete and damaged form – is a comfort when people want holistic answers to larger questions. He captured an idea that others have also articulated when reflecting on how ancient material might be brought alive and ‘reapplied’ in the future, seeing an opportunity ‘to think about while thinking with’ the Classics.[6] This module has led me to return to Hugo of St Victor who said ‘(t)he person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner…but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place.’ Hugo goes onto state that the ‘perfect man has extinguished his’ attachments/loves – a rather destructive and distressing thought if taken at face value.[7] However, it is the process of ‘working through attachments’ that Hugo is advocating, and of looking upon past selves with detachment but not being defined by them.[8] While it can be all too easy as a Classicist to be defensive about certain long-held beliefs of why we are still relevant or just as important as other disciplines, we must start again, forgetting what we think we know as true. Blogs such as Eidolon and Pharos are constantly reassessing these ‘attachments’ lest they become stale, while also exposing the multifarious ways in which ancient material can be warped to prop up modern ideologies. For Classics to move forward, we must keep pushing the discipline to better interact with the public beyond the dusty tomes of scholars.

As romantic as we like to be about Classics’ utility, Tom Shakespeare notes both the ‘importance and danger of imagination.’ It is all well and good for Classicists to ponder big ideas from their ‘ivory towers’ but at some point, we must come down and confront the problems in our own house. Morley’s explanation that ‘Classics matters because it has mattered’ should not be something we simply accept: we must do better. Classics must retain its ‘mongrel’ identity and acknowledge its past hermeneutic iterations in order to adapt.[9] Reimagining what success means for a humanities subject such as Classics will be a key issue for its future. Economics no doubt will rear its vulgar head, but Classics can fight back with a value of a different sort: the infinite potential for expression and discovery of the self.

[1] E. Said, Culture and Imperialism (1994).

[2] H. Morales, Antigone Rising (2020).

[3] Chaniotis, Kuhn & Kuhm, Applied Classics: Comparisons, Constructs, Controversies (2009).

[4] Ibid. p.49.

[5] B. Williams, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (2002), 169.

[6] This idea is explored by Joy Connolly in M. Formisano & C. Shuttleworth Kraus, Marginality, Canonicity, Passion (2018).

[7] The Didascalicon of Hugo St Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts (edited by J. Taylór, 1961).

[8] E. Said, Culture and Imperialism (1994).

[9] N. Morley, Classics: Why it Matters (2018).

(Originally published on the School of Classics blog, 14 April 2021)

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